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Using Broadband to Support Internet of Medical Things

Organizations embracing the Internet of Medical Things need to consider broadband and how to ensure their devices are successfully connecting and communicating with the network.

Source: Thinkstock

Healthcare organizations are adopting Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) devices to connect patients and clinicians to the network. IoMT devices provide remote monitoring solutions for patients and collect valuable data that can be used for analytics.

These connected healthcare devices save organizations money by keeping patients out of the hospital. Monitoring patients with IoMT devices reduces the rate of return visits and gives clinicians better insight into a patient’s conditions.

However, the influx of IoMT devices can put strain on the network infrastructure leading to bottlenecking, which prevents clinicians from accessing vital information when they need it.

Large organizations can have up to three times more connected medical devices than traditional computers and smartphones. An organization with 30,000 computers may also be supporting 85,000 connected medical and IoMT devices. These connected IoT devices put massive strain on the network and can cause outages if the traffic is not managed and monitored properly.

The weight of traffic from these devices also makes connecting them via the WiFi network impractical. Many healthcare organizations are using broadband to connect IoMT devices used on campus and for remote care.

Broadband is becoming a more attractive and realistic option for healthcare organizations to overcome these IoMT connectivity issues.

Broadband offers more reliable connections and allows device users to be truly mobile. However, organizations need to consider how IoMT devices are built to ensure they can properly connect to the broadband network.

Organizations must also consider what access patient have to broadband and make efforts to ensure rural communities can use broadband for telemedicine programs.

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Using antennas to connect, stay connected to broadband

The success of IoMT devices begins with how they are built. The device’s antenna must be properly placed and configured or the device will not work as intended. Medical devices are notoriously noisy and are made up of many different parts that may disrupt the antenna’s signal if not properly positioned.

The cellular antenna is the link to network connectivity and converts electrical signal into radio waves, which is why it’s critical for IoMT devices to have efficient antennas. A good antenna makes all the difference, especially when it comes to fringe areas or areas with bad signals. This is vital to mHealth and telehealth programs that provide remote care in rural areas.

“Each medical IoT antenna really needs to be custom fit for a medical device in order to be successful because every medical device is so different,” Taoglas Co-Founder and Co-CEO Dermot O’Shea told HITInfrastructure.com. “An insulin pump is completely different from a defibrillator, which is completely different from a sleep apnea machine. They’re all totally different shapes and sizes than any other devices.”

While there are many benefits to healthcare IoT devices, organizations often face challenges in the design and testing phases of medical device development because they may lack awareness of the antenna and its necessary certifications.

“For example, there’s a lot of high powered electronics inside a defibrillator,” O’Shea explained. “There’s a lot of mechanisms in place that create a lot of RF noise and there’s nothing you can do to change that. It’s the nature of a defibrillator. When you go to cellular or any wireless technology that becomes very challenging.”

“If the antenna is not efficient, the device is working harder to maintain or get that connectivity,” he continued. “The less efficient the antenna is the more power the device will consume.”

IoT devices are important to healthcare because they save organizations money. However, organizations can only save money using IoT device if they communicate with the network correctly and efficiently.

Improperly placed antennas will also cost organizations money. If the antenna is not working efficiently, the device needs to work harder to maintain connectivity.

Organizations need to communicate with medical device companies and manufacturers during the design process. Antenna and RF solution providers need to know certain device requirements and will make sure the antenna it placed properly. 

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Finding broadband success in healthcare

Most healthcare organizations use cellular connections over WiFi because it’s more reliable and allows the devices to be truly mobile. Each medical IoT device has an antenna that connects the device to the healthcare network.

“Cellular is the only reliable way to really communicate with the devices,” O’Shea explained. “If you’re only using WiFi then you’re relying on the user, patient or caregiver to do all the WiFi connectivity in terms of selecting the WiFi network and putting in the password.”

Remote care and telehealth programs that depended on the patient’s home WiFi network were often unsuccessful especially when clinicians were visiting patients in rural or underserved areas. Home WiFi connections were often unreliable and were not strong enough to transmit large files or stream video for conferencing.

If patients didn’t have a WiFi network, then they were unable to receive the remote care the needed. Rural and underserved areas are more likely to not have at home WiFi networks and they are also the most likely to benefit from remote care programs because of travel restrictions.

Broadband is used for these situations because it extends over a larger area. Organizations are able to ensure that the broadband connection is secure by partnering with broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T to support their devices.

Broadband can handle more traffic, which is why it is also used for on-premises IoT deployments.

“Cellular is more robust in an environment,” said O’Shea. “It’s never a problem if too many people are using cellular to log onto the network like it is with WiFi. That’s often the problem in a hospital: there’s too many people using the network at the same time and it slows down the network.”

Broadband also allows IoMT devices to be truly mobile. IoMT devices depending on WiFi connectivity have to constantly connect to and disconnect from different WiFi networks as the user moves. If the device is connected to broadband, it doesn’t have to keep reconnecting to different WiFi networks and constantly ask for network permissions. 

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Source: Thinkstock

Government support of broadband for the IoMT

Government agencies are recognizing the importance of broadband access to healthcare and are taking steps to improve access to broadband for medical purposes.

Recently, the FCC released a public notice seeking comments and data on actions to accelerate the adoption and accessibility of broadband-enabled healthcare solutions and advanced technologies. Increased wireless network technology will help improve patient care.

The document stated that broadband networks are becoming more significant to the national wellbeing and that maximizing their availability will enable all Americans to take advantage of 21st-century healthcare.

The FCC is assisting in the adoption and accessibility of broadband enabled healthcare solutions, particularly in rural areas, by seeking information. The information will help the Commission identify specific areas where broadband connectivity is lacking.

The FCC is requesting input from a range of participants including health systems, community health centers, clinicians, pharmacists, nutritionists, allied health professionals, public health and social service agencies and organizations. The agency is also seeking the input of broadband innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as academic and research facilities.

The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) released a letter back in May urging the FCC to categorize broadband access among the social determinants of health as it continues to develop policies and programs in the future.

AMIA agreed with the FCC’s position that healthcare is being “transformed by the availability and accessibility of broadband-enabled services and technologies and the development of life-saving wireless medical devices.”

Furthermore, the association contended that access to broadband is, or soon will be recognized as, a social determinant of health.

“FCC has a critical role in ensuring that Americans benefit from the electronic health infrastructure that was initiated with the passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, and supported by the 21st Century Cures Act,” said the letter.

“We note, that should private-sector actors fail to sufficiently address broadband access and digital opportunity for disadvantaged populations, FCC and other federal, state, and local partners must be willing to take a leadership role,” the letter continued. “This role may include direct funding or subsidies for access, and preemption of state and local laws pursuant to section 253 of the Communications Act.”

The FCC has a critical role in ensuring that broadband infrastructure is operational and fully implemented across the country, AMIA explained. Specifically, AMIA recommended the FCC do the following:

  • Partner with federal and state/local agencies to leverage broadband-enabled health solutions and technologies against the opioid epidemic
  • Align programs that can bolster efforts to better target those with chronic conditions, and ensure that these populations have access to affordable broadband and broadband-enabled health technologies
  • Examine other agency sources of administrative data, such as CMS, ONC and CDC, among others, to assess broadband-enabled health solutions capacity and needs
  • Leverage the work done by the National Institutes of Standards & Technology’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, also known as NSTIC, to ameliorate privacy and security concerns in accessing health care-related information via public broadband

Broadband continues to be a significant technology healthcare organizations need to embrace as they continue to deploy IoMT devices. WiFi networks simply can’t handle the strain of the increased traffic and are too restricting on movement. Broadband allows devices to remain constantly and securely connected at all times so signals are transmitted correctly and effectively.

Healthcare organizations need to consider broadband connectivity as they design and deploy connected medical devices. As telemedicine programs grow, patients are dependent on device connectivity for their wellbeing. 

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